Characteristics of Women in Chaucer’s the Canterbury Tales

Obeissance in medieval England was obtained by women, in case a woman happens to defy male authority she was referred to as a wicked woman in the footpath of Eve, and in case a woman continued to be true to her husband by being obedient even in harsh situations she could be equated to the Virgin Mary. These very opposing kinds of women are described in The Canterbury Tales where the tales involves gender relations and reveals the characters’ perceptions towards the opposite sex.

The writer illustrates the complex relations among sexes with irony and humor, something that has not only fascinated readers but critics as well through the ages. However, the writer experiments his female narrators and characters to reflect how both the Eves and the Virgin Marys objected the roles imposed on them by patriarchal order.

The Canterbury Tales is a story written by Geoffrey Chaucer and is about unconnected groups of twenty nine pilgrims travelling together on a pilgrimage. From single women to knights, to nuns and monks; to lower class-tradesman, they interact and narrate to each other their tales. Each pilgrim narrates two stories on the way to Canterbury and other two stories on the way back to London. What makes this story so compelling is how Chaucer has presented his female characters, they mirror real life qualities as Gordi puts it (2). Chaucer moulds real life characters, depicting both their physical appearance and characteristic which give the reader a clear visual image of the character. He as well gives a sense of credibility by putting his characters in a pilgrimage. It is inside these tales the reader meets the radical female characters of 1300-1400 who portray the behavior of women who challenged the order of mediaeval patriarchal society where they were mandated to be submissive to male authority (Friðriksdottir 9). Chaucer describes his female character in a way they either subject to the male domination, accepting their destiny to be under men without questioning, or they challenge male domination, following condemnation and attempt to gain control over their lives hence not victims of fate.

Chaucer’s female characters reveal their aspirations, culture and literacy background as women of medieval. A woman position in The Canterbury Tales was either to be a nun or a mother; however the tales narrated by the female characters illustrates individual hopes and dreams of women who are dissatisfied with the tradition that undermines their position. The Canterbury Tales mirrors middle aged women who are trying to seek for solutions so that they may be happy and satisfied. Vaneckova found out that there are only three female narrators on the pilgrimage (4).

The first woman narrator is Bath’s wife who represents wives that are trying to take control of their lives in marriage, the second woman narrator is the Prioress and the Second Nun who represent female voices of religion, and the third woman narrator are attitudes of the male narrators towards women. Albeit of the many different women’s characters in The Canterbury Tales, there are two roles that have been vividly illustrated: the wife role forms the basis of women who are social misfits and the role they present while the nun role features women who have perfectly accepted their roles. Nonetheless the tales echoes by these women shows there is something more fulfilling they are looking for than what fate has offered them. They want more than just a short time solution; they are searching for a higher feminine ideal appropriate to women. They appear to be reasonable women who have a dimension of humanity and are not predictable. With a unique voice they articulate hopes conflicting with their system in which they are a part of. But their voices are not used for aggressive self-assertion, depicting them to be weak and not close to feminism. They are also not recognized and furthermore they are unaware to formulate a noticeably feminine view of the world outside the male skill tradition. Chaucer has illustrated female characters as weak with shy voices of femininity who do not notice the insufficiency of male tradition.

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, female characters challenged the order of mediaeval patriarchal society in various ways. The first female narrator is Bath’s wife, she reflects women of controversial character. She is a wife, and a widow; she reveals her feelings, actions, beliefs, and behavior, which makes her appear as a subversive woman. So far her experience as a wife, a professional cloth maker; her connections with bourgeoisie linked with trading, her travelling, and her experience with different social classes; shows that she has been married five times. She learns that marriage is established on money, and the one in charge of the economic assets is the one who has sovereignty. So she manipulated her first four husbands who all die leaving her in charge of their lands and goods. She also proves that she benefited in all her marriages by giving the fifth husband everything she owned. More so, she disputes the clergy’s representation of God words and changes the perception to her benefit. The second female narrator is the cases of the Prioress and the Second Nun; they imitate female voices from the religion.

Prioress is a woman who gets her position in the monastery by means of endowment, her manners and behavior depicts she belongs to the aristocracy. While in the convent belonging to Benedictine order, she represents her former status. She does not comply with the rules and hence she is not completely devoted to her religious order. She defies it by: giving much attention to her attire; going for pilgrimages; and she own pets and gives food to them that is supposed to be given to the poor. In her tale she praises the Virgin Mary and look down upon the monks indicating they have gone astray in their way in serving God. This shows she does not hold men in high regard. The Second Nun undermines male writing, she praise a man who wrote about St. Cecelia. She narrates how St. Cecelia preached and converted many. Though married to Valerian, she maintained her virginity (Nelson 180). She wasn’t afraid to defend her belief in God and defy the standards of marriage. She tells her husband that if he attempts to claim her virginity he will die and vehemently rejects the traditional course of marriage. It is evident the Second Nun does not reject the husband’s right to dominate, but rejects the male authority. The third voice represents the males view on women; the tales of six women are narrated here. May from the Merchant’s tale and Alisoun from the Miller’s tale represents wicked and disobedient wives. They are young beautiful girls’ marriage to older men. However their beauty provokes jealousy of their husbands who holds them captive, but May and Alisoun subtly manage to find a way to be with younger suitors and fall into sin and betray their husbands. Griselda from the Clerk’s Tale and Custance from the Man’s of law tale are representatives for the ideal good wife. In as much as they endured suffering, they both yielded and obeyed their husbands and fathers. Custance sheepishly agrees to marry a man his father has chosen for her while Griselda chooses to endure the suffering her husband inflicts on her. Her selfish husbands tirelessly test her obedience and submissiveness on many occasions and require her to consent on his every demand. However both Custance and Griselda overcame their ordeals with faith and obedience, they never attempted to disobey and trick their husbands.

Emelye from the knight’s tale and Malyn from the Reeve’s tale represent women who turn out to be objects to be fought over, caught between battling opponents. Unlike most women they had no control over their lives, their fate and had very little or no chance to refuse their position in the society. Both Malyn and Emelye were objects and victims that were used by males. Malyn’s father used her to gain status by marrying her off to someone of good lineage, and Emelye was used in vengeance against her father.
The Canterbury Tales explore women’s gender roles and the patriarchal power structures, Chaucer’s description of female narrators and characters differs, but they however mirror on women and historical roles. The Canterbury Tales admits how unsuitable that position was, and steadily remind the readers of the harsh situations imposed on women, which was to make certain they succumb to the male authority.

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